Does wisdom and individual improvement inevitably result from the authentic pursuit of truth? I think so. Yet, this conclusion is not so clear in light of the differences of opinion between intellectual elites. But I wonder what they actually do agree and differ on. Could it be that they actually share much more than is made apparent? Could it be that our culture’s obsession with controversy clouds this reality?
Seriously, what is our problem? How is it that we still get so much wrong despite the enormous growth in social science research in the 20th century? Is the problem simply that the academics have not yet learned the importance of intellectual humility? Are the social pressures too strong for them to put the pursuit of truth above the ideology they have grown accustomed to? Why does it seem so difficult to pursue the greatest (net per capita) happiness in an objective way?
You see, I have put the pursuit of truth above the ideology I used to hold. Indeed I recognize that I don’t yet have all the answers. But am I able to hold this agnostic opinion only because I am young? If I’d been doing research for 20 or 30 years is it likely that I would still be able to hold this position? I would think that I’d have come to some significant conclusions by then. But then if I had been pursuing truth in a non-ideological way the whole time, wouldn’t that have led me to the truth? So then if there is an objective truth, wouldn’t all people that seriously pursue it eventually come to very similar conclusions? I want this to be true. Goddamn, I want this to be true!
But before I move on, some of you might be wondering what exactly I mean by “truth.” In this context I am speaking of the truth about how the world works and what the path to the greatest happiness is. This is a political truth. It is the answer to the question of what the world ought to be like. But let’s analyze this a bit further. First of all there is the question of what the world ought to be like; but I’ve already answered part of this by claiming that we ought to pursue the greatest happiness. Some ideologies actually do not claim this, while others claim it only implicitly. Either way, it’s bad methodology. The obvious first step is to explicitly state the goal of achieving the greatest happiness. From here we then move on to figuring out how this is achieved.
Of course I don’t know how the greatest happiness is achieved. But is there a clear way of making progress on this question? I’ve already explained the importance of the character trait of intellectual humility, but that in itself won’t lead to anything. What we need in addition to this is the application of the scientific method to the question, which of course leads us to the realm of social science.
But social science research has been going on for a long time. However, is every bit of this research pertinent to the question we are dealing with? Could it be that the failure of social scientists has been due to them seeking the answers to the wrong questions? Perhaps most research has not been done with the ultimate purpose of the achievement of the greatest happiness in mind. Indeed the historian Russell Jacoby has published work exposing the problematic situation in academia in which scholars conform to producing irrelevant and obscure research in order to gain tenure. Of course this does not mean that these scholars have given up on the objective pursuit of truth, but it does mean that they have given up on the pursuit of the truth that I am speaking of in this blog. To me, this translates into no less than moral treachery.
In order to explain why this is moral treachery it is essential to ask the question of what the purpose of social science research is. But who determines this, and how? My hypothesis is that this issue of purpose is one surrounded by much confusion. However, this need not be the case. We can avoid this confusion by recognizing that all actions ought to either be ends in themselves (meaning that we do them because they directly bring us happiness) or be aimed at contributing as much as possible to the happiness of the population. The first case is explained by pointing out that we need not justify to anyone the things that happen to make us happy. As for the second, it’s a bit more complicated. First we must realize that actions involving more than one person are by rule political; second, we must understand that politics is nothing but an extension of morality; and third, we must recognize that since politics is an extension of morality, all acts must be justified in terms of their contribution to the happiness of the population (or as the Utilitarians would call it, utility).
The point I’m trying to make with all this is that the institutions that produce social science research suffer from a severe case of moral confusion. And as a result of this they make moral blunder after moral blunder.
Despite this, it is only social science that can lead us toward the greatest happiness. And although things are currently quite bad, hope remains due to the fact that we humans have a grand capacity to reason. Thus, if we are able to just momentarily wake up from our neurotic slumber, and then during that time find the strength to commit ourselves to reason, we can free ourselves and finally start to make progress toward the happiness that justice demands.